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The Rise of Plant-Based Meats

Plant-based meats are one of the most remarkable culinary innovations of the past decade. Despite being made from soy, peas, beans, and other vegetables, plant-based meats still have a flavor and appearance that resemble animal meats.

From traditional dishes like tofu to modern delicacies like the Impossible Whopper, meat alternatives have long been an excellent source of protein for individuals seeking to reduce their meat consumption. More recently, food experts have seen plant-based meats as a path to greater food security for the world’s growing population. Plant-based meats also have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change.

A History of Plant-Based Meats

Meat alternatives are an ancient culinary innovation originating from various Eastern cultures. Tofu and tempeh are two well-known examples of early plant-based alternatives to meat.

Tofu originated in ancient China, most likely during the Han Dynasty, and over time became a popular East Asian dish made from coagulated soy milk. By 1970, tofu began to spread to the United States, and it became popular among healthy eaters and vegetarians looking for a low-cholesterol meat alternative. Tofu contains high amounts of all eight essential amino acids, so it is an excellent source of plant-based protein.

Tempeh, a soy-based dish originating from the island of Java in Indonesia, is another example of a meat alternative that spread from the East to the West. Tempeh has been a traditional Indonesian delicacy for centuries, and European explorers in the Far East learned of it by 1875. Later, in the mid-20th century, tempeh spread to Japan, Europe, and the United States. By the 1980s, tempeh became a popular commercially produced food in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The growing interest in soy-based meat alternatives has allowed tempeh, like tofu, to become a widely eaten dish across the globe.

Plant-Based Meats Today

In the 21st century, a new generation of plant-based meats that mimic the taste and appearance of their traditional counterparts has emerged. Start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have sought to capitalize on the rise of vegetarianism and healthy dieting in the United States by introducing meat-like products to market.

Beyond Meat, founded in 2009, aims to reduce human dependence on animal meats by offering plant-based alternatives that closely resemble burger patties, Italian sausages, meatballs, chicken tenders, jerky, and other meats. Ingredients used to make these plant-based meats include soy protein, potato protein, sunflower oil, yeast extract, and salt. Beyond Meat’s plant-based foods get their meaty flavor from an iron-based compound named heme, the same substance that gives traditional meats their savory taste.

Impossible Foods, founded in 2011, also offers a slew of plant-based meats—including burger patties, ground beef, pork, and sausages. The main ingredients in these meats are peas, mung beans, rice proteins, canola oil, coconut oil, potato juice, and beet juice extract. Like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods also uses heme to give its plant-based dishes a meaty taste.

Food industry giants have also begun to participate in the plant-based meat market. Tyson Foods, Kellogg’s, Cargill, and JBS S.A. are well-known food behemoths that now offer their brands of meat alternatives.

Plant-based meats have several health advantages over their traditional counterparts. For example, plant-based meats contain less saturated fat but more fiber and vitamins than conventional meats. As Americans become more health-conscious and aware of their dietary habits, the demand for healthy foods like plant-based meats will grow.

Despite the benefits of plant-based meats, these foods do face a few hurdles. Many omnivores who expect plant-based meats to taste just like their traditional counterparts are often disappointed upon noticing a difference in flavor. Some healthy dieters have also criticized plant-based meats for their long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients (e.g., maltodextrin, methylcellulose) that make them seem like ultra-processed foods rather than fresh, healthy dishes.

How Plant-Based Meats Can Reduce Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is a perennial problem that has always plagued our world. Experts estimate that about 800 million people worldwide face food insecurity or hunger.

The number of food-insecure individuals may increase over the next few decades as human population growth strains the planet’s scarce resources. The growing demand for traditional meats may exacerbate the problem of resource scarcity because animal-derived foods typically require more land, water, and energy per calorie of food produced than plant-based dishes. Thus, animal meats alone may not be able to satisfy the world’s growing demand for protein sometime in the next few decades.

However, plant-based meats can mitigate the problems associated with their traditional counterparts by providing a protein-rich alternative that consumes fewer resources. Plant-based meats, on average, use 47 to 99 percent less land and 72 to 99 percent less water than conventional meats. This disparity in resource use results from the differences in the processes of producing plant-based and animal-based meats

For example, to make traditional meats, farm animals must be given grain fodder to eat. Since plant-based meats do not require the land- and water-intensive cultivation of grain feeds for animals, they consume smaller amounts of natural resources per calorie of food produced. Thus, switching from animal-based to plant-based meats will reduce the depletion of natural resources like soil and water that are necessary to sustain a growing human population.

The conservation and efficient use of natural resources will make the world’s food system more secure and reduce hunger across much of the planet by allowing for the production of more calories and nutrients using the same amount of input. Therefore, the rise of resource-efficient plant-based meats will enable farmers and food producers to provide healthy, nutritious meals to more people around the globe.

How Plant-Based Meats Can Help Fight Climate Change

Global temperatures have been rising in recent decades because of increased carbon dioxide concentrations associated with the combustion of fossil fuels for transportation, electricity production, and other human activities. Average global surface temperatures were about 1 degree Celsius higher in 2014 than in pre-industrial times. By 2050, surface temperatures may rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Droughts, floods, habitat loss, and coral bleaching are just a few of the ecological consequences that could occur because of climate change.

To slow down climate change, individuals need to reduce their carbon emissions, and one way to do so is by eating more plant-based meats instead of animal-derived foods. In general, the production of meats like beef or pork involves more carbon emissions per kilogram of food than the production of plant-based dishes like tofu.

The carbon footprint of a plant-based hamburger can be up to 89 percent lower than that of a traditional beef burger. The carbon footprints of burger patties made from plant-based sausage or chicken are about one-third lower than those of their animal-derived counterparts.

Plant-based meats are popular dishes shaped by ancient origins and modern innovations alike. Tofu, tempeh, and Impossible Whoppers provide plenty of protein to vegetarians and healthy dieters. These meat alternatives may also be critical to the future of resource conservation because they consume water, energy, and other scarce natural resources more efficiently than animal-based meats. Plant-based meats can also make the Earth healthier because they have smaller carbon footprints than their traditional counterparts.

Shak Ragoler is a student at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is passionate about reading, writing, mathematics, technology, and politics. In his free time, he enjoys hiking, running, biking, and volunteering for nonprofit organizations.

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